Jim Duffy: heat is on as India’s business go-getters get going

There is no social security in India. The jobless have to get a job or make a job. Micro businesses are everywhere. Picture:Getty
There is no social security in India. The jobless have to get a job or make a job. Micro businesses are everywhere. Picture:Getty
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TENS of thousands of young people are throwing themselves into new start-up companies across India, writes Jim Duffy

When I was a boy, some considerable time ago, I recall watching the BBC sitcom It Ain’t Half Hot Mum. Created by the Jimmy Perry, who also worked on Dad’s Army, it was one of the most “non-PC” comedies Auntie has ever aired, albeit very popular at the time. It was the only British sitcom to have been set outside Britain. In short, it followed the adventures of the Royal Artillery concert party, their encampment and the Indian servants they employed to look after them. The programme will, quite rightly, not be aired again on the BBC having been branded racist – how things have changed for the better.

The officers on the show had their own little abode and outside they had the punkawallah, the servant who, using a pulley system, would keep the punkah – the ceiling fan used in India before the electric fan – swinging and the room cool. The officers also had the chaiwallah who prepared their tea. I’m in India right now as I write this piece and my Indian colleagues are awash with information and very aware of their history. I asked about these two terms, punkawallah and chaiwallah, and the negative connotations that come with them. I was nervous at bringing up these terms as even saying them in English feels to me a bit off. However, I was surprised at the responses I received… and somewhat relieved!

Chaiwallahs still serve tea, Indian tea (which is delicious), on streets and small roadside shops. Traditionally, the chai or tea was brewed in brass vessels, however this has changed as technology has progressed. As I travel about New Delhi, I see lots of chaiwallahs plying their trade. My Indian colleagues told me that the current Prime Minister of India, Mr Narendra Modi, was a former chaiwallah. He occasionally, I was told, served tea to the customers of his father’s tea stall outside the Vadnagar railway station. This stopped me in my tracks. Quite literally, I had to de-couple (thanks Chris from Coldplay) and go have a think about this.

India is the world’s biggest democracy with 1.2 billion people – it dwarfs the US in this regard. Like America, it is made up of states, like Gujarat. Incidentally, Gujarat is a dry state – no alcohol – and it’s also the most entrepreneurial in India – go figure! It’s also where Mr Modi hails from. He started from humble beginnings but is now the top man in India and has no problem with his early employment whatsoever – he’s proud of it. He has a massive mandate for change and has brought the business community and many self-made entrepreneurs around him to help achieve his vision on poverty and homelessness.

This brings me to the new mindset in India. Be in no doubt, India is on the up. Its GDP sits around $2.4 trillion, it is the seventh largest economy in the world and is outpacing China as the fastest-growing economy to boot. We all know this, it’s not new, but there is a lot more going on behind the figures.

Everywhere I go in India, I see a people totally determined to get ahead. From the street traders selling motorcycle helmets at the roadside, to the millions of motorbike users; to the drivers catering for foreign visitors, to the social entrepreneurs helping Prime Minister Modi further his vision, to the start-up and early stage businesses creating clever tech propositions that Silicon Valley would be envious of.

There is a real impetus for making something of themselves in the people I see and meet. Education has always been a staple of the ambitious Indian mum and dad who want their children to do well. Every other graduate I meet has a Masters degree – it’s a badge of honour, but a must to the employment market. My close Indian colleague, Murali, tells me of how hard his mum and dad worked, and what they did without, to put him and his siblings through university. It is a sobering story that again stops me in my tracks. He is now living in Singapore doing very well, but is so passionate about India and helping the next generation to pull themselves up and out of poverty.

There is no social security in India. The jobless have to get a job or make a job. Micro businesses are everywhere and the global rise in entrepreneurship has not been lost on India. Tens of thousands of young people and graduates are throwing themselves into new start-up companies… and this is only the beginning.

In London, with its population at 12 million, there are over 65 business accelerators/incubators that are recognised as such, with many more smaller outfits springing up every quarter. In India, with over a billion folk, there are under 50 of these such ventures. The landscape is embryonic with the potential massive. There will be a proliferation of organisations set up to boost entrepreneurs, businesses and the economy. The next decade will, I have no doubt, be a big one for India.

This brings me back to the start and my rather dated, old-fashioned and non-PC sitcom. In It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, while the British perceived themselves as a bit more sophisticated, it was actually the Indians who were the smart ones. They always had the last laugh and the best lines. As I sit here in Noida on the outskirts of New Delhi, looking at huge infrastructure and building projects, listening to my Indian colleagues speak passionately about what Mr Modi is doing and how they are all in it together, while meeting fascinating young entrepreneurs, I think the Indians will again have the last laugh.

• Jim Duffy is the chief executive optimist of Entrepreneurial Spark